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Seniors Amanda Shurbaji,

Seniors Amanda Shurbaji, left, and Abby Clapman are members of the Lake Central football team. Amanda is in her second season, Abby her third.

Girls playing high school football.

Shocking! Appalling! Dangerous!

OK, knock it off, neanderthals.

We're in the 21st Century. Man does not live in caves anymore. We have electricity and indoor plumbing and Amazon Prime.

Girls playing high school football is not a revolutionary thing. I've done this story many times over the last five years — at Munster, at Griffith, at Merrillville, at Calumet, and now Lake Central where it's business as usual for seniors Abby Clapman and Amanda Shurbaji.

Abby is in her third season as a place-kicker for coach Tony Bartolomeo's Indians, Amanda in her second as a wide receiver.

That's right, wide receiver.

The obvious question for both is, why pick perhaps the second-toughest prep sport next to wrestling?

Watching football practice while in middle school is all it took to win over Abby.

"I wanted to kick because I played soccer and I knew I could do it," she said. "My parents have been totally supportive. They were very encouraging. Go try out and if they say they don't need you, OK.

"There's the risk of getting hurt in any sport. I was a goalie (in soccer) and you tackle lot, so my parents weren't too worried about me getting hurt."

Added Amanda: "I like to do something that's exciting, something new. It's not easy, but it's worth it Friday night when we're together on the sideline."

Having another female on the team helps both girls.

"It's better than being by yourself in the locker room," Amanda said.

Abby recalled talking to a female player at one of the Duneland Athletic Conference schools two years ago and learning she was virtually ignored by male teammates as if she were invisible.

"I told her that doesn't happen here. They respect me," said Abby.

As physically demanding as the sport is, Abby and Amanda have learned to "toughen it out" rather than lose their composure and hurt the team.

They're not the type to curse or throw a helmet if practice doesn't go their way. Composure is key.

"You can't let emotions affect your performance," said Abby.

Both players, even as reserves, are an important component on the Indians' team, according to Bartolomeo.

This is all new to him, too.

"My approach hasn't changed. I just try to treat them and coach them all like athletes," Bartolomeo said. "I learned that when I was the girls track coach at Merrillville. I'm not going to coach you like girls. I'm not going to coach them like boys.

"I'm going to treat all of them fair."

That means no preferential treatment just because they're girls, no backing off in drills and workouts.

Football doesn't come with bubble wrap.

"They're not a novelty," Bartolomeo said of Amanda and Abby. "They're not just out here sometimes or they just come for the actual season.

"At every offseason workout, they lifted and did every single thing in our year-round program."

L.C. football is quite progressive, by the way, with assistant coach and former Valparaiso basketball standout Jeanette Gray now in her third season on the gridiron staff.

"No one even notices she's a girl. She's a coach. They treat her like a coach," Bartolomeo said. "She's addressed like a coach. She's a great coach regardless of the sport."

Clapman is the backup for kicker Cole Rainwater, a Valparaiso University soccer recruit, while Shurbaji is anxiously awaiting her first varsity pass reception.

"A work in progress. It's something different and she's brave enough to try it," said quarterback Zach Bundalo. "It opens doors down the line for (girls) who want to play football."

Take in a game this season and don't be surprised by the roster makeup. Crown Point has freshman Jasmine Denvit as a defensive back. Gavit has senior Katie Reyna, in her second season as a wide receiver/outside linebacker.

There could be others, locally, once rosters become official.

Hopefully, they enjoy the same positive environment as Lake Central's program.

"Everybody's treated equally," Bundalo said. "They're not looked at as girls on the football team. They're looked at as part of the team; one of us.

"We treat them like they're our brother and we're all family. It's cool more people are starting to do it. It's good for football in general just to have that kind of diversity."

Makes you want to stand up and cheer for young people who embrace inclusion. They get it.

School spirit never looked better.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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